Autistic learner cooks alongside celebrity chef

Former LVS Hassocks learner Liam Pope with top chef Raymond Blanc at the Chelsea Flower Show
Former LVS Hassocks learner Liam Pope with top chef Raymond Blanc at the Chelsea Flower Show

A former learner who developed a love for cooking at Sussex school LVS Hassocks took his culinary skills to a new level recently when teaming up with celebrity chef Raymond Blanc to cook at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Liam Pope, 19, was invited by Raymond to join his top team of chefs at the annual summer spectacular after winning the national Sodexo Young Chef of the Year competition in October. Liam’s prize for winning the competition was the chance to cook with Raymond for a week at the show, which ran from Tuesday May 24 to Saturday May 28, having also enjoyed a visit to Raymond’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons restaurant in Oxfordshire to spend time in the development kitchen for the event with his team.

Liam’s interest in cooking began after he started at LVS Hassocks, which provides day and residential facilities in Sayers Common for over 80 eight to 19-year-olds with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum.

Liam said: “LVS Hassocks focuses on giving learners the ability to be independent and look after themselves, and it was them giving me the opportunity to cook for myself at the school to achieve that which triggered my interest in it as a career. LVS Hassocks also allowed me to cook in the school kitchen with the catering team there to get used to the equipment and what to expect, and also set up valuable work experience for me with the Yummy Pub Co at The Wiremill in Surrey.”

The Chelsea Flower Show experience mixed hard work with glamour, creating dishes for celebrities including Piers Morgan and Ainsley Harriott, with a £500-a-head set menu being served to between 700 and 1,500 visitors to the show each day. Liam was arriving at 6.30am to create breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, before ending his shift at 11pm every night. It was all worth it, however, as Liam’s work drew praise from Raymond Blanc.

Liam said: “Raymond said thank you for the hard work and that he appreciated what we had all put in to the week. He also said it was the best quality food that had ever been served up at the show and that he wants us back again next year too.”

Raymond Blanc is not the first celebrity chef to be impressed by Liam’s culinary talents, as he was first discovered as a schoolboy by Paul Rankin who performed a cookery demonstration with Liam when officially opening LVS Hassocks in 2011.

With just 15% of adults with autism in full time employment, Liam is a fine example of what people with autism are able to achieve with the right support and had this message for others in the same situation that he was in at school: “You have to give any opportunity you are presented with a chance as it might lead to something big.

“I had never thought I would be interested in cooking before going to LVS Hassocks. If you had told me a few years ago I would be cooking at the Chelsea Flower Show with Raymond Blanc I would have said I would be out of my depth, but I have shown that it can be done and autism doesn’t have to hold you back”.